It’s just before noon on a warm Thursday in Barcelona, Spain. Tucked down a bright side street in the neighborhood of Gracia, La Vermuteria del Tano has been open for a few hours. It’s still easy to find a seat at the bar or one of the small tables packed into the compact dining room.
As la hora del vermut arrives, so do the patrons. They come in a nearly constant stream until every seat is taken and a line forms outside the door. For the next few hours, the capacity crowd will snack on tapas and sip on one of Catalonia’s most social drinks. Eventually, people will leave to go about their afternoon business, and passers-by will have their choice of seats once again.
This midday ritual of gathering to sip and snack over conversation centers around vermouth, spelled “vermut” in the local dialect. Made by steeping herbs, botanicals, and aromatics in fortified wine, this rich cordial has been around a long, long time. The first versions of wine mixed with herbs dates back to 1250 BC, when it was used for medicinal treatments. The Greeks were the first to incorporate the herbaceous plant wormwood into the mix around 400BC. This plant, called wermut in German, would ultimately inspire the beverage’s name used worldwide.
While the concept of herbed-steeped wine dates back to antiquity, it wasn’t until the Italians introduced a sweet version in the late 18th century that vermouth started to enjoy prominence in the burgeoning cocktail culture, rather than solely for medicinal purposes. In France and Italy, vermouth found popularity not only as a mixer in drinks, but also alone as an aperitif. Enjoyed chilled over ice with a lemon peel, this sophisticated and simple prelude to a meal quickly gained a dedicated following.
Vermouth is also enjoyed in Spain, traditionally consumed on Sunday afternoons as an excuse to gather and sip away the afternoon discussing current events. Modern vermouth culture is more casual about when enjoyment can be had. On any given day of the week, it’s common to find vermuterias filled with patrons laughing and sipping the noon hour away.
A Vermouth Resurgence
Spain’s love of vermouth has enjoyed a resurgence in the past fifteen years or so after a significant loss in popularity dating back to the mid-1970s, when Spanish dictator and politician Francisco Franco and his Nationalist party’s rule of the country ended with his death. As the country transitioned to democracy, younger drinkers eschewed vermouth, viewing it as a symbol of earlier generations.
Fast-forward a few decades, and vermouth has been staging a massive comeback, overtaking the ubiquitous gin-and-tonics as el aperitivo del día. Modernized vermuterias give thirsty patrons an alternative to older bodegas for ways to quench their mid-day thirst. With updated designs and more vibrant interiors, they offer younger patrons an enticing environment better suited to their tastes.
There are as many house recipes for vermouth as there are bars and bodegas serving it. Each has their own recipe – no two are quite the same. Often poured straight from the tap or gravity-fed from huge aging barrels, vermut can be served in a glass, or a pitcher, or a bottle left at the table for people to serve themselves. Often a sifón is left at the table as well, allowing consumers to add a splash of carbonated water to their drink if they wish.
People choose from two general categories of vermut – red and white. Both begin the process as white wine. Red vermouth usually then has caramelized sugar and alcohol added (typically brandy or sherry), along with herbs like cardamom and cinnamon, citrus, and bitters from plants like wormwood and licorice root. Extensive steeping gives the finished liqueur a rich, dark color and complex flavor.
A Drink that Brings People Together
Just as important as finding a locale with a favorite vermut recipe is considering the food served with it. Spanish vermut’s sweet body and herbaceous flavor is perfect for tapas. (Interestingly, the Spanish versions tend to be less bitter and taste sweeter than their Italian cousins, despite actually having less sugar in them.) Dishes like boquerones(white anchovies marinated in vinegar and herbs), patatas bravas (fried potatoes served with a spicy tomato sauce), or thin slices of the country’s inimitable cured ham, jamon Serrano, are perfect counterparts to a glass of chilled vermut.
It takes time to become comfortably familiar with Barcelona’s vermut scene. Trying versions from many different bars and restaurants is really the best way to get to know what’s best. When you’re only there for a few days, it’s best to consult a professional for advice.
Melissa Paige Leighty, owner of Salut Wine Studio, is quite familiar with Barcelona vermut culture. Since moving here from Orlando, Florida a decade ago, she’s immersed herself in Catalan food and drink culture. Now the owner of an elegant wine and spirits education space, all her attention is paid to exploring, teaching, and writing about what Barcelonians eat and drink. Vermouth plays an important role.
She notes the proper way to serve vermut depends on the style being enjoyed. “White vermouth is always served with a lemon slice,” she asserts. “Olives are optional.” Red calls for a balance of citrus and salty as well – orange wedges with anchovy-stuffed olives are best. “The idea of the saltiness works great with the sweetness of the vermouth.”
In all cases, ice is a must. “You have to have ice,” Leighty proclaims. “Chilled is the best way to enjoy your drink.” Warm vermouth is to be avoided at all costs. “It’s really unpleasant when it’s warm,” she says. “It’s like drinking cough syrup.”
No matter which style of vermouth or method of drinking it is preferred, Leighty is certain of one thing. Vermouth’s fer un vermut culture is back for good, and that is just fine with her. “I love the vermouth culture here,” she says cheerfully. “It’s a drink that brings people together.”
“Vermut is a Spain thing,” she laughs.
Adam Centamore is a writer and professional wine & cheese educator in the Boston area. His book, Tasting Wine & Cheese – An Insider’s Guide to Mastering the Principles of Pairing, was a finalist for the IACP Cookbook of the Year award. Adam conducts tasting events and seminars around the country and has written for Saveur Magazine, Culture Cheese Magazine, the Boston Globe, and other publications. When not working, he enjoys traveling to discover new ways to enjoy cuisine and culture. Adam loves to eat, drink & learn!